Wellbeing challenges of staff and volunteers across the migration sector

March 9, 2023
Pascale Gayford
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Pascale Gayford

Our recent discovery project revealed that staff and volunteer wellbeing has been seriously impacted over the last 3 years. It also highlighted additional impacts for those with lived experience of forced migration.

How might we improve wellbeing?

From September to December 2022, Refugee Action and SIDE Labs led a co-discovery project focused on answering the question: How might we improve the wellbeing of people working in the migration, refugee and asylum sector?

This project was in response to growing concern about staff and volunteer wellbeing across the migration sector since the beginning of the pandemic. The Insight Hub Survey survey in June 2022 revealed that 76% of refugee and asylum organisations were “surviving” when it came to staff wellbeing. The top 3 wellbeing issues reported were overwork, financial worries, and stress and anxiety.

To ensure this was a collaborative discovery process, we carried out 1–2–1 interviews with more than 20 people and ran 2 workshops with people working in the sector including caseworkers, mental health support workers, managers, CEO’s, wellbeing experts, strategic member organisations and funders.

Organisations involved included AVID, Manchester City of Sanctuary, Rainbow Migration, Micro Rainbow, CLEAR project, Helen Bamber Foundation, PAFRAS, Refugee Women Connect, Refugee Action Services and West of Scotland Regional Equality Council.

Our top 3 learnings

1. Everyone has different wellbeing needs

We spoke with 18 different people who work in various roles in the sector and although there were some similarities, everyone had different experiences and different wellbeing needs. Because of this, it wasn’t surprising that most people valued flexible working to help them juggle life alongside work. We recommend that solutions implemented to improve wellbeing are designed and driven by staff, and decisions are not made by leadership for them.

Those who have lived experience of the asylum process and are working in the sector face unique challenges and therefore wellbeing needs. This includes having ‘too much knowledge’ about the asylum system from their own experiences of it. This sometimes leads to feeling a greater sense of duty to help people because they know more about what they’re going through and can connect. However this can also lead to overworking and blurred boundaries.

2. The migration, refugee and asylum sector is in some ways unique

Although some of the causes of wellbeing challenges including funding pressures and overworking are commonly shared with the wider charity sector, there are some things that are different and therefore mean that more generalised wellbeing solutions on offer will not suffice.

The sector serves people who are particularly vulnerable, having lived through unimaginable experiences. These experiences differ greatly from client to client. Such as the language they speak, their position within the asylum system and the places they have travelled here from.

“Conversations are very different. One could be about universal credit and another about how a client has been abused.”

It is difficult for organisations and people to continue to keep up momentum and capacity to support people given the rising hostile environment, the Nationality and Borders Bill, the Rwanda plan and the increase in far right attacks as well as responding to the impacts of global humanitarian crises.

“You are battling against the government and immigration system”

It was recognised in the workshops that many people who don’t work in this sector don’t understand what we actually do. The Asylum Process is hidden from public knowledge and therefore it sometimes feels quite isolated. This was with the view that a lot of services direct people straight to organisations within our sector rather than trying to offer some support themselves.

3. We need to work together to improve staff wellbeing

One of the biggest things we learnt from our workshops was the value that came from bringing people together and sharing experiences and ideas. We heard people tell us they felt ‘reassured’ after we’d shared what we’d heard from our interviews.

“I feel reassured that it’s not just me feeling like this, maybe I’m not incapable of my job, maybe it’s a wider sector problem”

We also had a chance to share some examples with one another, and come up with some ideas of how to turn this research into something useful. We heard from participants that ‘stealing ideas from each other to implement in our own organisations’ was one of the most useful things.

There is demand to work together across the sector, at different levels. One reason for this is because sometimes it’s easier to speak to people who understand, but are outside of your organisation. Another reason is to standardise some ways of working across the sector, sharing ideas, rather than each organisation having their own practice. Learning from others and working together may also save time when implementing strategies, writing policies, or creating procedures.

What happens next?

Read the whole Wellbeing Discovery Report.

Thanks to Noam and Polly for leading the project and report write up and all the organisations that have been involved so far - this is a collective effort.

If you are interested in getting involved in where the work goes next please get in touch with pascaleg@refugee-action.org.uk. We are currently bringing together a toolkit and are looking for contributors who want to share their stories. We may be able to reimburse expenses for content creation. We must prioritise wellbeing for all so that we can all continue to support asylum seekers, refugees and migrants to access justice and rebuild their lives in the UK.

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